Friday, September 5, 2014

Petaluma’s Measure Q: The Arguments Roll In

In my last post, I wrote about my reasons for supporting Measure Q in Petaluma, a sales tax measure intended to replenish municipal coffers after the great recession.  I suggested that my distant roots in Puritanism may induce me to insist on paying my own way, rather than transferring the costs of municipal upkeep to other segments of the population or other generations, and leading me to vote for Measure Q even though I find some aspects flawed.

The specific circumstances around Measure Q are unique to Petaluma, but there are similar tax measures on ballots around the country as the costs of the failed 70-year experiment in drivable suburbia continue to be tallied.  So I feel comfortable writing about Measure Q and letting the readers draws the parallels to their own communities.

From my email inbox, it appears that I may be in a minority among urbanists in my support of Measure Q.  And I’m fine with that.  Writing this blog is indicative of my willingness to not conform.  I can’t see the harm in finding yet one more isolated island to inhabit.

However, the emails make legitimate comments about Measure Q, which I think are worthy of discussion.  So today’s post will summarize the comments and my responses.

One reader, a long-time Petaluma resident who recently moved away and misses the town, wrote that, if he still lived here, he’d oppose Measure Q because it’s “a backdoor to the Rainier Connector”.

To which I could only question of his use of “backdoor”.  To me, it’s a clear front door.  Proponents often point toward the Rainier Connector as a reason to support Measure Q.

Indeed, the likelihood of Rainier being built is my principal concern with Measure Q.  I can only hope that the city uses the Measure Q funds to do the necessary infrastructure repairs and then, during the years during which Caltrans is assembling the funds to improve Highway 101 to accommodate the Rainier Connector, the community sees the flaws in Rainier and collectively decides to shift priorities elsewhere.  I know that likelihood is limited, but I’m willing to hope that the public eventually grasps the failure of suburbia.

Another reader expressed concern about the possibility of future City Councils redirecting the revenue from the tax measure.  One specific concern she expressed was the use of the funds to cover pension obligations.

But the key point on pensions is that the obligation already exists.  Short of falling into municipal bankruptcy and attempting to discharge a part of the pension obligation through the court system as is being done in Detroit and Stockton, we're stuck with the debt.  Measure Q isn't so much about funding the pensions, but about making up the shortfall that results after City Hall writes the checks to the pension funds.

One can certainly argue that the pension deals reached by the City Councils of the late 20th century were flawed and should never have been made.  Indeed, that is a conversation that I think should happen so that we can learn from the mistakes.  But any conclusions we reach will have no impact on the current municipal financial outlook.

Lastly, a reader says that she’ll vote against Measure Q because the tax is regressive and falls unreasonably hard on younger adults getting started in life and raising families.  I’ll make the pedantic point that, as a flat rate, the sales tax is actually neither progressive nor regressive.  And then I’ll agree with her enthusiastically.

I’d much rather see municipal finances addressed by a progressive tax, whether a revision to Proposition 13, a local income tax, or some other alternative.  This argument veers into an area of national economic policy and social equity that is beyond both the range of this blog and my ability to effectively discourse, but remains worthy of consideration by the voters.

Indeed, this point almost displaces the Rainier Connector as a reason to dislike Measure Q.  Nonetheless, I still remain clothespin-on-nose supportive of Measure Q.  Those darned Pilgrims are deeply embedded in my psyche.

(This last reader also makes the humorous aside that she truly doesn’t mind the potholes, finding that they make an effective traffic calming approach on her overly wide street.  This argument is tangential to Measure Q, but nonetheless seemed worthy of sharing.)

I hadn’t planned on covering this subject today, but receiving thought-provoking emails is always cause for celebration and publishing schedule adjustments.  Under my revised schedule, my next three posts will address the principal non-urbanist objection to Measure Q, ruminations on why urbanism doesn’t have a more prominent role in public debate, and a parallel between urbanism and football.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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